The inauguration speech of Indonesia's 7th President, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, was powerful despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it. It contained a striking blend of personal humility, national pride and an ethos of unremitting work. But as an analyst of Asian geopolitics, I was most struck by its message about Indonesia's rightful aspirations as a seagoing Indo-Pacific power; an archipelagic country connecting two oceans.

Midway through the speech, these few sentences stand out as a vision of Indonesia's potential as a maritime power: 

We have to work really hard to return Indonesia's status as a maritime nation. Oceans, seas, straits, and gulfs are the future of our civilization. We have been showing our backs too long to these seas, to these oceans, to these straits, and gulfs.


This is the time for us to return them all, therefore Jalesveva Jayamahe, it is at the sea we are glorious, as the motto of our ancestors, may ring once more.

The nautical theme continues throughout. Towards the end of his remarks, the President also invokes the words of Sukarno: that to build a great Indonesia 'we have to possess the soul of cakrawati samudera, the soul of a brave sailor going through the rough and rolling waves'. The sea also lends him his concluding metaphor of leadership, teamwork and success in the face of hardship: 'As a captain, trusted by the people, I invite all people of this nation to get on board this Ship of the Republic of Indonesia and sail together to the Great Indonesia. We will be in full sail. We will face all storms and waves with our own strength.'

This is not just evocative rhetoric. There is a practical policy edge.

For instance, as others have observed, the high-sounding words Jalesveva Jayamahe (also translated as 'at the sea we will triumph') happen to be the motto of the Indonesian Navy. The speech suggests Jokowi is serious about wanting to advance and deepen the efforts of his predecessor to make Indonesia a more active and capable maritime player in the region. This will require not only building up the Indonesian Navy – which has recently begun to modernise after long having little ocean-going capability to speak of – but also making Indonesia more effective at managing its archipelagic waters which include critical international sea lanes. This in turn will require better surveillance, patrolling, cooperation with partners on transnational and interstate maritime security challenges, and active diplomacy on contentious issues, notably the situation in the South China Sea.

It may very well be, as my colleague and Indonesia specialist Aaron Connelly has recently argued, that Jokowi leaves foreign (and defence) policy largely to his advisers. But on maritime issues at least – which in Indonesia connect external and domestic policy — he seems to be getting good advice.

Of course it is premature to assume that these aspirations will translate into sustained, effective action. Still, the initial signal is good news for Australia and the diverse other countries that want to engage Indonesia as a pragmatic, capable maritime security partner in this Indo-Pacific era.

Note: The author is grateful to Matthew Hanzel for an elegant and timely English translation of the speech, as quoted here. Another unofficial English-language translation can be found here. The original Indonesian-language text can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Yulian Hendriyana.